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Pier Pressure: Four teens (from left, Sung Kang, Roger Fan, Jason Tobin and Parry Shen) mount an assault on the Ivy League colleges of their choice in 'Better Luck Tomorrow.'

Nothing's Shocking

In 'Better Luck Tomorrow,' Asian American teens cheat, steal and even commit murder, just to get into a good college. Shocking and immoral? Yes. Necessary? Hell, yes.

By Todd Inoue

JUSTIN LIN'S Better Luck Tomorrow may be the most progressive Asian American film since Wayne Wang's Chan Is Missing. This striking drama about four Asian American scholars who turn to crime is a controversial head trip whose ending may divide the most strident proponents of multicultural inclusion. The film's exploration of the secret lives of teenage academic types earned a huge buzz at Sundance 2002, though some people couldn't pass through the emotional checkpoint. In a now-famous post-screening conversation, a Sundance attendee whipped Lin for making a "bleak, negative and amoral" movie. After some back and forth, Roger Ebert came to Lin's defense, saying, "Asian American characters have the right to be whoever the hell they want to be. They do not have to 'represent' their people."

And so it goes for Better Luck Tomorrow. As four valedictorians push to get into Ivy League schools, they pad their extracurricular activities with petty thievery, drugs and cheat sheets. Their reputations spread through school, and they struggle with their new "baller" status, succumbing to the pleasures of easy money, inflated heads and top-tier GPAs.

Roger Fan plays Daric, the ringleader. Jason Tobin is the loose cannon, Virgil. Sung Kang plays his silent-enforcer cousin, Han. Parry Shen is the main character, the well-to-do Ben. Together, they move stolen equipment, throw wild parties and stockpile enough bad karma to earn multiple afterlives in hell. The nihilism is tempered by Ben, who wants to--but can't--extricate himself from the game. Karin Anna Cheung plays Ben's love interest, Stephanie; John Cho is her noxious, distant boyfriend, Steve, who offers the fearsome foursome a chance at a big score.

Better Luck Tomorrow is an Asian American film that exists without the usual qualifiers of martial arts, immigration or takeout. The characters may be overachievers, but they are as imperfect and jagged as broken glass--and just as potentially lethal. Their transition from valedictorians to thugs forms the film's dominant image, one that sticks around and haunts for days afterward. Better Luck Tomorrow is a shocking and incendiary film, one that practically scorches the screen and, along with it, the expectations placed upon it by the Asian American film establishment and society at large. It is very necessary and highly recommended.

Better Luck Tomorrow (R; 98 min.), directed by Justin Lin, written by Lin, Ernesto M. Foronda and Fabian Marquez, photographed by Patrice Lucien Cochet and starring Parry Shen, John Cho, Sung Kang, Roger Fan and Karin Anna Cheung, opens Friday at Camera One in San Jose. Roger Fan will be at the Saturday (April 12) 7:15 and 9:30 shows.

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From the April 10-16, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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